Helena Milsom

March 11th, 2020 in

Last November ‘Climate Strike’ was announced as the Collins Dictionary 2019 Word of the Year. Following that the Oxford Dictionary team had a couple of weeks of brainstorming before deciding that although it was sort of copying, the world was also sort of falling apart, and announced ‘Climate Emergency’ as their winner. Finally, it was Dictionary.com who looked around and concluded that ‘Existential’ just about covered all the problems we’re facing, the planet included, and prompted us to ask the questions about ‘who we are and what our purpose is’.

Without thinking too deeply into the philosophical musings of an online dictionary, we can admit that the threat of a warming planet has been a pretty hot topic this past couple of years, and several important questions have been repeatedly asked. The main one being, what can we do to stop it? It’s no secret that big corporations are the largest contributors towards climate change, and that if they don’t do something to change, us spending hours recycling the right type of plastic and getting into arguments over how many plastic straws a turtle eats in a year seems pretty pointless. 

One of the biggest offenders is the global fashion industry as it produces around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and a further 20% of the worlds waste water, meaning fast fashion culture has quickly become climate-enemy number one. It has also been estimated that between 2012-2016 in the UK there was an increase of 565% in clothes purchases, easily believed when you look at the rise of cheap clothing sites such as Pretty Little Thing, Boohoo and Missguided who thrive on low-priced and often poor-quality clothing that is not designed to be worn on more than a few nights out. 

But it’s not all bad news. Alongside the rise in fast fashion there has been a paralleled rise in sustainable fashion, and some of the biggest names in fashion today appear to be on board. But can big brands ever really achieve a sustainable level of production? With concerns over sustainable products driving up costs, will it just come down to whatever is cheapest? Or can multi-million-dollar brands actually have a conscience? We’ve picked three of the biggest brands out there who are making sustainable moves to see whether they can really be trusted, and whether they can really help save us from the relentless flood of fast fashion.

Patagonia: Sustainability Can Make You Money

Since Yvon Chouinard founded clothing company Patagonia in 1973, he has been committed to making it a business like no other. The company has been something of a trail blazer in their environmental approach, with a unique ethos of not being out just to make money, but by being ‘in business to save our home planet’. Incidentally, they do make a bit of money (Forbes predicted Chouinard’s net worth at $1 billion back in 2017) but have also committed 1% of all their sales to grassroots activists since 1986, providing more than $100 million so far.

Although there were undoubtedly people along the way who questioned the profit-margins of clothing made from plastic bottles, or of ad-campaigns specifically telling people ‘Don’t buy this jacket’, the company’s fight against consumerism and a fast fashion culture has succeeded against all the odds. Their counter-intuitive attitude against the very market within which they function, has inspired other companies to follow suit. Their Worn Wear initiative, which calls upon owners of Patagonia clothing to repair and reuse their clothes rather than replacing them, can now be found in the ethos’ of several companies including Levi’s and H&M, who are recognising the culture they helped to create, and showing us how to try to make fashion more sustainable. 

But Patagonia’s real success lies in the design of their clothing. Their fight against consumerist culture never would have been legitimate if their own designs had been bad. It’s their reputation for good quality clothing that consciously makes as little impact as possible which has truly set them apart, with nearly 70% of their current products made from recycled materials. However, this reduction of your carbon footprint also comes with a thinning of your wallet, as wearing their recycled clothing comes at a price. Men’s and Women’s jackets currently range from £90 for a thin weather-resistant layering jacket to £550 for a cosy looking 3-in-1 parka, with most of the decent jacket range between £150-250. 

The price is perhaps the main thing standing in the way of Patagonia’s accessibility to all. In his book ‘Let my people go surfing’, Yvon Chouinard talks about his life before starting the business living on $1 a day and sleeping outside for 200 days of the year, and how he reinvested all profits into the company at the beginning, not becoming personally wealthier but focusing on growth. It is here that one of the biggest contradictions of his approach comes into play. His desire to protect the planet and make as little impact as possible is hard to reconcile with the reality of a multi-million-dollar company that makes, sells and ships clothes all over the world. Although his intended market was people who would buy his clothes once then repair and reuse them, thus reducing the need to buy clothes for life, it hasn’t completely turned out that way. 

The very industry Chouinard hoped to fight against has adopted Patagonia as its own ‘fashion fixation’. With people such as Kendall Jenner sporting the brand, who would rather not go outside than be seen in the same outfit twice, has Patagonia’s popularity outgrown its very origins and founding principles? Being part of fast fashion culture was probably the last thing Chouinard envisioned when he started the brand. However, it could also be argued if people see Kanye West wearing Patagonia, and then go and buy a T shirt, then surely that’s one less T shirt doing bad things for the planet? It may not be the end goal Chouinard wanted, but perhaps the only one he could realistically hope for. As hard as you fight for people to take responsibility for the impact of their clothing, many people don’t want to know, and many more probably don’t care. Although this could be seen as pessimistic, if we can get to a point where the people who don’t care about the sustainability of their clothes are inadvertently buying T shirts that are made out of scrap fabric and discarded plastic bottles, then the fight against fast fashion is underway. 

If there is one thing that Chouinard must have realised, it’s that you can’t change and industry as big as fashion from the outside, and that showing everyone you can make sustainable clothing that sells is more effective than shouting it from the picket line. Sometimes people need to see to believe, and as one of the most transparent companies out there that is not only sustainable, but is proudly Fairtrade and has an impressive approach to workers welfare, Patagonia is ready for you to take a closer look. 

Levi's: Save Water, Don't Buy Jeans?

As a successful company, the last thing you want to do is undermine your own sales by publishing how harmful your product is towards the environment. However, in a time where customers are demanding transparency, it becomes the first step to rebranding your company as one they can trust. It was perhaps this thought that led Levi’s to conduct their own study into the environmental impact of their jeans in 2013, and to kickstart their own initiatives to start to reduce it. 

It makes an interesting read, with the standout statistic being the 3,781 litres of water it takes to make one pair of Levi’s 501 Jeans. Putting that into context, if you were to drink your (dubiously) recommended 8 cups of water a day, it would take you over 5 years to drink enough to match it. It seems like an awful lot, and the main culprit is cotton farming which accounts for over a third of the water consumption in the life of a pair of jeans. 

It is this problem that other companies such as Patagonia realised pretty early (back in ’96), and the solution was organic cotton, which uses around 87% less water compared to conventional cotton with a bonus 45% reduction in CO2 emissions. However, Levi’s now reuse water during production, claim to use more than 20 water-saving techniques and aim to have 80% of Levi’s products created using water innovations by this year. Although these measures seem somewhat vague and perhaps rely on you having some sort of knowledge of ‘water techniques’, they’re at least addressing their problem. They’re also partnered with RE/DONE, a brand that remasters vintage Levi’s jeans, and have started to encourage people to wash their jeans less and donate their old pairs. 

Yet with around 500 stores worldwide, and with net profits standing at $5.8 billion at the end of last year, it would seem they’re selling more than ever before. So how do you make your products more sustainable and still make money? Their water initiatives have certainly helped reduce their environmental impact dramatically, but their second solution 

is to capitalise on the idea of reusing by making ‘vintage’ items twice the price. An Original Fit pair of Men’s 501 jeans will currently set you back £75-90 from Levi’s official site, but the Vintage 1947 501 Jeans will cost you £200. They weren’t made back in 1947 but are a reproduction of the ‘fits, fabrics and details of bygone eras’ and are pegged as ‘iconic reissue’ and ‘special edition’ jeans. This whole sales pitch works off the idea of repurposing clothing from the past, without actually reusing anything but the old patterns. It’s not necessarily deceptive, and they’re certainly not the only brand that markets their clothing in this way, but it is a way established brands distance themselves from fast fashion and convince customers they’re wearing something original and authentic, when it was probably made a few months ago in one of their 144 factories in China. Although this is no doubt good for profits, it doesn’t really solve anything with regards to the brand’s sustainability, and without any details on the website concerning the materials used to make the jeans it can only be assumed they’re not using recycled textiles. 

But after having admitted the challenges that the company faces implementing sustainable goals, they’ve set themselves some pretty radical targets for the next five years. Partnering with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) they’ve committed to achieving a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and to use 100% renewable energy across its facilities, whilst also achieving a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions throughout its global supply chain. Once a leader such as Levi’s makes such a dramatic change, the knock-on effect for the industry could be huge, and once the precedent is set it’ll be much more difficult for companies to get away without their own sustainability commitments. 

H&M: Size Matters

A clothing company giant, H&M reported sales of £9 billion last year and are one of the world’s most well-known fashion retailers. If anyone was to lead the way in sustainable practices for the high-street, it should be them, and in many ways they have already made impressive steps. In their last Sustainability report, which covers the year 2018, they reported using 57% of materials as recycled and sustainably sourced. This was true for 95% of their cotton, with a goal of 100% for the year 2019. They also reduced their CO2 emissions by 11% and set a goal that all their packaging would be made from 100% recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030.

This is a lot of numbers, but when you take into account the scale of H&M, and how many clothes account for that 57% of materials, the results would be staggering. ‘Would be’, as there aren’t really statistics out there accounting for the number of clothes H&M produces, and if you have ever been into one of their 4500 stores, then you might start to realise why. They’re cheap, they’re everywhere and because of their size, they’re undoubtedly one of the biggest players in fast fashion today.  

Early 2018 saw them with a reported $4.3 billion in unsold clothes due to a drop in foot traffic to their stores, and back in 2017 they were accused of burning 12 tonnes of unsold clothing per year. H&M denied these allegations, originally made by a Danish documentary called Operation X, and defended themselves saying the clothes incinerated in the programme were burnt ‘because of mould or not complying with out strict chemical restrictions. They even went as far as to publish the test results online in an attempt to clear their name. Yet it was then reported that discarded H&M clothes were being burned to fuel a Swedish power plant that aims to use only ‘renewable and recycled fuels’. Although making energy from clothes is marginally better than just incinerating them, it’s a striking example of the harsh realities of fast fashion and of the huge amount of waste created by a company as huge as H&M. Why is this even happening? H&M say that it’s because the clothes were unwearable, but how did they get that way in the first place? The lack of responsibility shown is jarring for a company who continuously promotes their sustainable brand and recycling scheme. It seems burning stock was something they decided to leave out of their much-hyped sustainability report and will only make customers wonder what else they’re hiding.

They’ve also more recently been accused of ‘greenwashing’ (a practice in which brands promote themselves as sustainable and forget to actually do it). Both because of their Conscious collection, which was deemed to have ‘insufficient’ information about its sustainability, and because of the fact that as a huge fast fashion retailer it’s simply producing too many products to ever be sustainable for the planet. So what is the solution? Obviously, they should be trying as much as possible to become more sustainable in their practices, and they have a handy feature on their site that lists all the materials used in every item of clothing, and also includes links to the suppliers where possible. They also run a recycling scheme in their stores with a £5 in-store voucher being offered for every bag of unwanted clothes and materials. This is a step towards sustainable practices and transparency that was clearly needed, but with regards to the bigger picture it isn’t really enough. 

Their size is one of the main things that will consistently prevent them from being sustainable, and as their profits and production continue to grow year on year it seems an impossible problem. The only way they will truly change is if people take notice and stop buying clothes that are so cheap that they’re considered worthless enough to burn. 

The Solution?

There are a few lessons we can learn from looking at these three brands. Firstly, although they’ve all claimed to be using recycled and sustainably sourced materials, it’s necessary to look beyond the ‘sustainable’ label and green colour palette to see what is actually going on behind the scenes. Patagonia is miles ahead of most of the fashion industry when it comes to putting money where their mouth is. From their investment into researching the best sustainable materials to donating millions of dollars to grassroots activists they’ve proved that it’s possible to be a huge company and do good things for the planet. Their continued commitment and sustained success have raised the bar for companies such as H&M and Levi’s, whose secretive burning and vague commitments are just not good enough.

But ultimately, it’s not just the companies who need to change their practices, it’s us who need to change our habits too. For fast fashion to die, its lifeline will need to be cut off. We need to buy more responsibly, repair clothes and stop promoting the idea that you are anything other than a normal human being for wearing an outfit more than once - moving beyond trends that change as quick as the wind. Your wallet might not thank you straight away, but the planet will, and maybe 2020 will be a little less existential and a little more hopeful. 

Here at DW

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